A tale of two test scores

The Education Beat

Achievement: The discrepancy between dire results of national assessment exams and sunnier state data have some questioning the meaning of `proficiency.'

November 16, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE NATIONAL Assessment of Educational Progress tested a cross-section of Maryland eighth-graders this spring and found 31 percent were at the "proficient and above" achievement level in reading.

The Maryland School Assessment tested the same kids in the same subject at about the same time. Just under 60 percent scored at the proficient level and above.

What's going on here? Is the national test twice as hard? Or are the tests equally rigorous, but Maryland is twice as generous in scoring?

As with all things having to do with school testing, the answer is complex, but here's a clue: Most states have lower expectations for their students than does the federal government.

Thursday, the day that the U.S. Department of Education released the 2003 NAEP results, Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group that works to lift academic standards, put out a report comparing 2003 state testing results with 2003 NAEP results.

Of 29 states giving tests in eighth-grade reading, all but Louisiana and South Carolina came up with more proficient and advanced readers than did the nation's report card.

And Maryland's discrepancy was small compared to most others. Texas found 90 percent of its eighth-graders reading at the proficient and advanced levels. The national test of the same middle-schoolers found 26 percent at those two levels.

The definition of proficient has taken on urgency because the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires the states to raise all of their children to that level by 2014, and because the national test, formerly taken voluntarily by the states, is now required as a backup check on whether the states are challenging their students.

NAEP's written definition of proficiency is pretty close to Maryland's. Kids scoring at that level "demonstrate competency over challenging subject matter." Students in the next-lowest category, basic, have "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills." And the NAEP, unlike the Maryland test, has a below-basic level for those who lack even partial mastery.

In eighth-grade reading, a whopping 29 percent of Marylanders scored below basic. That's a percentage point higher than the national average. Both are sobering statistics.

The state tests vary considerably in type and quality, says Michael Cohen, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education who is president of Achieve. That's why it's so difficult to judge what it means to be proficient. A test may be arduous - and Cohen says Maryland's is challenging - but the proficiency cutoff score may be set low so that states can easily demonstrate "adequate yearly progress," another requirement of the federal act.

"Texas made a decision early on to start low and ratchet up," says Cohen. "They were honest about it, but it created lots of political controversy. Maryland, to its credit, decided to start with the bar fairly high."

Some critics think NAEP results are deliberately alarmist to keep the pressure on state and local educators. NAEP's achievement levels are "no damn good," says Gerald Bracey, an outspoken George Mason University professor who makes a career tilting at the windmills of education naysayers. The way NAEP defines those levels, Bracey says, "is fundamentally flawed."

Cohen says state officials are "asking the wrong question when they ask whether their tests are harder or easier than NAEP. They should be asking whether the students they say are proficient are prepared for what comes next. If they did that, colleges wouldn't have to provide remedial education for thousands of kids who weren't prepared in high school."

If he had a choice, says Cohen, "I'd rather have a child who's prepared than one who's proficient."

@SUBHEDLearning center's digs a metaphor for change

The South Baltimore Learning Center will dedicate its new home tomorrow in a very old building - the renovated Southern Police Station at 28 E. Ostend St. On hand will be Mayor Martin O'Malley, lawmakers and many other folks who helped raise $2.3 million for the project.

The adult literacy center was smart - and creative - in deciding to recycle the old jail, built in 1896. The renovation combines many of the jail's features, including one of its original 14 cells, with features of a modern education center for adults: bright lighting, a computer lab and five fully-equipped classrooms. The before-and-after nature of the project, said board President Susan Fleishman, "is a metaphor for what goes on at SBLC."

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